Monday, March 21, 2011

Embracing Feedback and Criticism: What's the Use?

As a writer, a teacher, a student, and an editor I've had to deal with both giving and receiving feedback and criticism, and it has never been fun, easy, or always helpful. This is a shame, because feedback and criticism are some of the most important weights writers need to help build their writing muscle. This week Triumphal Writing will be looking at the feedback process, how to make the most of poor feedback, how to give good feedback and how to deal with criticism in general. I'm reading On Writing by Stephen King now, and one thing that has struck me so far (among many things. I'll probably mention this book in every post I write for the next year) was what he learned about feedback when he worked as a teenager writing sports articles for the local paper: "Write with the door closed, rewrite with it open." Think about that minute.

We talked last week about how painful the revising process can be, and this is natural. Your writing is extremely personal. It came from you, and yet the truth is that it only belongs to you until another person reads it. In the 1600s Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan mother of eight, wrote poetry for herself. Her brother found it, read it, stole it and published it without her knowledge or consent. He published it as a curiosity ("You'll hardly believe what a woman wrote! ") and she became extremely popular in Europe. But it also disturbed her a great deal. In a poem called "The Author to Her Book" Bradstreet writes:

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain, Who after birth didst by my side remain, Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true, Who thee abroad, exposed to public view, Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge, Where errors were not lessened (all may judge). At thy return my blushing was not small, My rambling brat (in print) should mother call, I cast thee by as one unfit for light, The visage was so irksome in my sight; Yet being mine own, at length affection would Thy blemishes amend, if so I could. Bradstreet compares her poetry to an ill-formed child that had originally been hidden from view. She is embarrassed by her poetry, and no matter how much she tries she cannot change those birth defects.

This sort of sentiment may be shocking for readers, but not for writers. Oh no, we know our writing has birth defects, and often we are embarrassed and shamed for others to read it. Fortunately, however, our poems and stories are not stolen from us and published without our consent. (In fact that situation may actually be a common fantasy among writers). Even though we know our writing has problems, we still need criticism and feedback. We need readers to tell us exactly what they think, why it moves them or doesn't move them, if it's confusing or dull or if there are parts that are glorious or indelibly shocking. You don't have to make every change anyone ever suggests to you, but you do have to toughen up a bit and realize that it's time for your baby to grow up and make it's own way into the world. It's not yours anymore.

Demanding More From Feedback

The worst experiences I've ever had as a scholar receiving feedback were always full of words like excellent, nice, well done, great job! and similar useless and lazy words. I'm not the best student, and I know that, but I'm just good enough to elicit praise, and it's much easier to praise than to criticize. I honestly believe my work has suffered for it, and I won't take it anymore. My ego is not a puppy and it doesn't need its ears scratched. Sometimes as writers we must demand constructive feedback.

This also means that we need to not be afraid to give good feedback when solicited. For instance, Haley sent me a draft of a blog post she wrote as a guest blogger. Instead of lazily responding "It looks great!" or filling an entire response with praise before I ventured a suggestion, I told her simply "Trim the first few paragraphs and add more meat to the end." Which she did without a word of argument or shock that I would suggest such a thing, sent me back another draft and it was great. No one's feelings were hurt, and the work turned out better in the end, so we were all happy. This is what feedback is all about.

In short, don't shy away from criticism. Embrace it. Love it. Demand it. And finally, use it. It's one of the most powerful tools in your writing toolbox.

We would love to hear from you. What has been the most effective feedback you've received? How do you approach giving feedback to writers? What was the least helpful feedback you've received?

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